The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America

By Kate Haulman | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
That Strange, Ridic’lous Vice

In his 1705 poem “The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turn’d Honest,” philosopher and satirist Bernard Mandeville wrote,

Their darling, Folly, Fickleness
in Diet, Furniture, and Dress
That strange, ridic’lous Vice was made
the very wheel that turn’d the Trade.

It was a paradox that puzzled many Britons during the eighteenth century: How could fashion be at once a social “folly,” a moral “vice” born of envy and appetite, and an economic good, “turning the trade” and contributing to the success of the English nation and British empire? Bernard Mandeville believed that in an imperial, commercial context the relationship between private vices and public benefits was salutary. If Britons were curbed of the impulse to fulfill their own desires, he argued, they would grow weak and dull. “As pride and luxury decrease, so by degrees they leave the Seas,” he rhymed, linking self- indulgence with the common good.1 Without the individual appetites for fashion that stimulated commerce, the nation withered on the proverbial vine, becoming economically moribund and militarily impotent. Yet other British writers openly decried fashion and its followers as feminized, Frenchified threats to social hierarchy and the health of the nation.2 Although far more sanguine about the effects of fashion, Mandeville himself considered the women who donned style after novel style to be “fickle strumpets.”3 What strengthened political economy might compromise morality.

Over seventy years later, American revolutionary leader Samuel Adams allied himself with critics and moralists when he cautioned that, “should foppery become the ruling taste of the great, the body of the people would be in danger of catching the distemper.”4 In conjuring the fop as part of his warning, damning fashionable men and their susceptible followers alike, Adams drew on a long- standing image of the preening, mincing man of

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